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Distant thunder of aging boomers

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The boys at my marina have been looking a tad older, as are the ones down in the anchorage. And so is the guy in the mirror, for that matter. The market of new boat buyers and current boaters is graying before our eyes.

We’re not alone. Consider that about 10,000 of the 77 million baby boomers are turning 65 every day. What are the implications for our industry?

It’s one of those good news/troubling news scenarios. More on that in a moment, but first some charts and figures from Info-Link’s Jack Ellis that graphically show the aging of new boat buyers during the past 15 years, as well as the age distribution of boaters.

Click here for a link an interactive version of the chart.

“As you can see, the average new boat buyer has increased from about 44 years old in 1998 to 52 years old in 2012,” says Ellis, the managing director of the Miami-based market research and analytics firm. “In other words, every year our average boat buyer has gotten a half a year older. And it holds true for every segment. It’s across the board” — from PWC to sailboats.

“This presents an enormous challenge to the industry because the bulk of our current customers are getting older by the day,” Ellis said in an email. “We have no choice but to find a way to attract more young people or tap into other segments, such as minorities.”

From an age distribution standpoint, the majority of today’s boaters are the same people who were boating a dozen years ago, Ellis says. They just happen to be about 10 years older now.

“The good news,” Ellis continues, “is that people are continuing to buy boats, often into their 80s. And one could argue that as more boomers approach retirement, they have more time and disposable income to devote to the sport.”

However, Ellis points out, the trend is simply not sustainable. “Eventually these people are going to stop boating, and our core market — middle-aged white guys — is going to diminish.”

And that, in a nutshell, is a big part of the impetus behind the industrywide Growth Summit and its initiatives. Though not new, the idea that growth one day will have to come from a more diverse pool of potential boaters and younger ones after boomers depart “stage left” is still, in some folks’ minds, a ways down the road. That may lessen its urgency for those focused solely on the here and now, but not its importance. It’s sort of like distant thunder. Ignore at your own risk.

“This is why it is critical that we as an industry find ways to attract younger buyers, women and minorities,” Ellis says.

Despite the graying of the boomers, Ellis isn’t concerned about this large cohort’s fidelity to boating.

“I agree that people approaching retirement age will change their boating behaviors, and some will leave boating altogether,” Ellis told me in the email. “I’m not worried about these people though. … All the evidence to me suggests that as boaters reach retirement age, they will continue to boat. It’s the younger, minority, non-boaters that worry me. As you can see on the charts, we are on the backside of the wave with no evidence of another one coming.”

In earlier blogs (click here) I wrote about the industry’s need to address this core group of boomer boaters as they age, with improved service and product changes ranging from more ergonomically friendly seats, ladders and steps to more transom and side doors for easier access — boats that are easier to use, maintain and service.

Ellis is confident that those changes will come.

“We have to accept the fact that our core customer base is aging and their needs are probably changing, too,” he says. “It’s not easy for them to wrestle their boat off the trailer or jump from the dock into the cockpit.”

But, he continues, “I think many builders will recognize that their core market is aging, and they are making design changes to accommodate these buyers. Builders who don’t recognize this trend probably won’t be around, anyway.”

In other words, make the best boat you can to fit the demographic curve that folks like you and me appear on. “In my opinion, this is an easy segment of the market to address,” Ellis adds. “We listen to what they want and then deliver it.”

For a sobering look at the “specter of downward mobility in retirement,” check out this recent story in The New York Times by Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research. She writes that about 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.

In all likelihood, they are not the boaters of today — or tomorrow.

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